Friday 16 August 2013

Viven : How we crossed from Togo to Ghana

Dear Viven,

We knew from the moment we received the only visa we could get (a 2-day transit), that Ghana, even more than Togo, was only for passing through.  In fact, once we departed from Togo, we only stepped off the bus to cross the border into the Ivory Coast.

This crossing was originally intended as part of our route from Paris to Tanzania.  Because of a visa issue with the DR Congo and then a car accident in Grand Bassam, our plans changed; this crossing instead formed part of the circular route we took from Abidjan, through Burkina Faso to Benin, and returning via Togo and Ghana. 

Our previous crossing was by taxi from Benin to Togo, and in Lomé we got on a long-haul bus which took us into Ghana, and then from Ghana to the Ivory Coast.  This letter is accurate as of the day we entered Ghana, on Saturday 10 August 2013.

Visas were required in advance, and from our research we anticipated some difficulty.  We visited the Ghanaian embassy in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on Tuesday 25 June.  The embassy is located on rue J95 in the Deux Plateaux area, northeast of the centre.  It was easy to find, and listed correctly at multiple locations on the internet.

We arrived at 10am, asked for a 30-day visa, and were told this was impossible because we were not residents of the Ivory Coast.  Only a 48-hour transit visa was available, and for anything else we should have applied before leaving our home countries.  We said it was not possible for us to obtain the visas from our resident country because we had to leave too far in advance for the Ghanaian embassies in France and the UK to issue them, and that it was crucial to have more than two days in Ghana in order to apply for Nigerian visas in Accra.

Our pleas fell on deaf and indifferent ears, but we insisted on speaking to the consul.  While we waited, I visited the Nigerian embassy and waded through the bureaucrat-speak to find out it might just conceivably be barely possible, with an avalanche of paperwork and some tremendous luck, to get more than a transit visa from the embassy there - but no guarantee.  We need more than a transit visa for Nigeria, of course, because we need to apply for the difficult Cameroon visa in Abuja and, with time, taking a shot at the notorious Angolan visa there as well.

I returned to the Ghanaian embassy and waited with Al until 12:30pm, when word came back from the consul on high that no, we could only apply for transit visas.  We filled out our application forms (an absurd four identical copies for each person), paid the money, and wrote a letter to the consul explaining our situation.  We left by 1pm with a receipt in hand, to return the following afternoon at 3pm.  We came back the next day on time and got our passports back, but without any luck: only the two-day transit visas had been issued.

Though we didn’t get a chance to experience it beyond bartering with food and drink sellers through the bus windows, Ghana’s official language is English.

Ghana has its own currency, the cedi (GHS), where GHS 1 = €0.38, or €1 = GHS 2.66.  We did not require or use any Ghanaian money, and so I can't speak to how easy it is to acquire in other countries or at the border.

The Route
We took the STIF bus from the station by the beach in Lomé (where we were dropped off by a shared taxi from the Benin border) direct to Abidjan.  The bus called at Accra, Ghana, around 1am, was stopped at the Ivory Coast border between 8:15am and 12:30pm, and dropped us off on the highway in Grand Bassam at 3pm, which implies it would have arrived in Abidjan between 3 and 4.

Our Means of Travel
Though we planned to spend a night in Lomé before rushing back to the Ivory Coast, we found out the schedule of the direct buses to Abidjan on the afternoon of our arrival and decided to get tickets for the 24-hour journey.

STIF buses from Lomé go to other cities on the Abidjan-Lagos corridor, and there was a list of prices behind the desk at the station.  They were as follows:

Lomé to Abidjan: CFA 24,000
Lomé to Noe (the border with the Ivory Coast): CFA 17,000
Lomé to Accra: CFA 6,000
Lomé to Cotonou: CFA 5,000

We arrived at the STIF bus station at 2pm (after a one-hour back time change from Benin) were told to be there at 3 for the bus, which was to leave at 4.  There was no bus in the courtyard until 6:15, at which time other passengers rushed on to claim their seats (we weren’t as quick).  The bus departed at 6:45. 

After only ten minutes of driving the bus arrived at the Ghanaian border, and was off again by 7:30.  The bus crossed Ghana through the night, passed through the arduous, heavily delayed Ivory Coast border in the morning, and arrived in Abidjan in the afternoon.  Total travel time (from arrival at Lomé station) was 25 hours; total time on the bus: 16 hours; total waiting around and border shuffling time: 9 hours.

The sheer inefficiency and timesink of the STIF bus should give some impression of the journey, but let me make it a little clearer.  The average-sized bus, raised to store baggage underneath, had five seats per row (two on the right side of the aisle, three on the left) and for our trip it was mostly packed.  The awful sounds of the wheels on all right turns would have been horrifying had it not been for the relatively straight roads all the way to Abidjan; but there was little further consolation in that none of the doors could close without a wire or rope holding it in.  Toilet breaks were limited to just two ten-minute stops along open stretches of road.  Meanwhile the seats were very small, both in width and length (I am of average height, which means below average in much of Africa, but could not create more than one and a half fingerlengths of distance between my knees and the seat in front of me by sitting back) and there was a screw which stuck out from the wall that I had to avoid being cut by.  How fruitless is it to mention, that it was hard to sleep?

The Border
The border crossing into Ghana was by far the most sophisticated of our entire trip.  We pulled up at the Togo side just ten minutes after leaving the Lomé bus station, at 6:55.  The bus conductor (one of four staff on the bus, including the driver) advised passengers to have their Yellow Fever vaccination certificates ready.  As the only non-ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States, an as-yet ineffective imitation of the EU) citizens on the bus, Al and I had to get off while everyone else stayed on to merely flash their identity cards and Yellow Fever certificates to a passing immigration inspector.

The Togo exiting process was quick, taking only ten minutes to wait, get stamped, and pass by the Yellow Fever inspection office without being seen.  We arrived at the Ghanaian side at 7:05pm, and each filled out a simple one-page form while waiting.  After about 15 minutes, we were one at a time summoned to the desk to show our visa, get a photo taken, and have our details entered onto a computer.  Then, we entered a smaller room adjacent to have our passports entry-stamped.  We were finished in this room by 7:30, again without being asked to show our Yellow Fever vaccination certificates (though there was a separate section for this purpose).

The bus left immediately after we got reboarded.  The whole process from arrival to departure took 35 minutes, and there was no request or mention of bribes, gifts or cadeaux from either Togo or Ghana officials.

What We Needed

In Dakar

  • Money: CFA 180,000 (90,000 each) for visa fees
  • Passports
  • Passport photos, two each
  • Three days, hours of waiting, and extreme patience for diplomatic bullshit and greed
For the bus
  • CFA 48,000 (24,000 each)
  • 24 hours from the supposed boarding time to arrival in Grand Bassam
  • Some measure of mental toughness
At the border
  • Passports with Togo and Ghana visas
  • Yellow Fever vaccination certificates (never actually requested)
  • To fill out one simple application form each
  • 35 minutes

It’s too bad we spent so much time and money getting this visa when all we could do was pass through in 48 hours.  I would like one day to properly visit Ghana, but if I were to follow our original plan again (without the need to return to the Ivory Coast), or to advise you on a similar route, I would say: get your visa in your home country if you can; otherwise, skip Ghana altogether, and go around through Burkina Faso.

Happy trails,


Off the bus
On the bus
Ghana border form,
to be filled out on entry and exit